Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fruit of the Spirit

close-up of a green apple
So in my lasting posting, I wrote a little about my thoughts on what Jesus meant when he spoke about the “kingdom of heaven.” As I mentioned before, what intrigues me the most about this kingdom is that Jesus spoke of it as happening here and now. Jesus introduced a new way of living in this world; a way to live like we were supposed to. Despite my belief that Jesus was serious about a kingdom of heaven on earth, I am left asking myself two questions. How do I live this way and is it realistic?            
It’s really hard living in the city and believing that human beings can bring about the kind of living that God intended for us. Every day, I am faced with the reality of poverty and injustice on a social level. I talk with men and women who are homeless and do not have access to safe and dignified shelter. On any given night, I can walk outside the front door of my housing and witness young women being prostituted on the street corner. During my time in Bay Ridge, I have befriended a young man and his mother who frequent the park next door. Last week, the young man’s father died. Since then, his mother has struggled with everything from depression to a broken down car, with no one to help. In the wake of all evil and injustice, how can we live in a way that brings about heaven here on earth?
Every Thursday night here at CSM, we host a worship night for the teen groups that come in. During this time, I give a short message on the theme of Hope, Renewal, and Restoration. At the end of my message, I read a portion of Scripture from the book of 1 Corinthians. The entire chapter speaks about love, and that anything done without love is meaningless. I have come to believe that love is the daily answer to how we are to bring about renewal. In a world fractured by hate, greed, war, materialism, and selfishness, love provides the healing ingredient for what a renewed world looks like. Of all the ways that God intended human beings to interact with each other, love is at the core of it. When a human being shows love to another, there is a glimpse of what a perfect world would look like.
Last weekend, I went with some friends to hear the NYC Philharmonic Orchestra play in Prospect Park. In the middle of the concert, a young, post-college age girl sat down in the grass in front of me. After a little while, she reached into her bag and pulled out a half-full bottle of water and an apple. Before drinking her water, she turned around and motioned to me, offering her apple. I thought to myself, “What kind of person offers a complete stranger an apple in the middle of a park?” Not only that, but how crazy would I have to be to accept food from a random stranger in the middle of a park in NYC? But after a while, something occurred to me. What if I had actually been a little hungry? If anyone I knew had offered me the apple, I would have certainly accepted it. So why wouldn’t I have accepted it from her? All social expectations prohibited me from taking food from a stranger, but this girl was living outside of those expectations. This girl was embodying a lifestyle that said, “I’m going to treat others as though they were my friends.” What if we let the kingdom of heaven guide the way we look at others, instead of the way we’ve been conditioned by a fractured world? I can help but wonder how my life would change if I looked at everyone, not with distrust and judgment, but with kindness and love, as if they were a family member.
The point of this all is not to endorse taking food from strangers ever chance we get. It is a call to actually live on earth, how we think we might live in a kingdom of heaven. I think it would flip our world upside down.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

King of Hearts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kingdom of heaven. This “kingdom of heaven” is constantly mentioned throughout the gospels. A large part of what Jesus spoke about centered on this subject. He even told his followers to go around saying that this kingdom had come. I used to feel like I never quite understood what Jesus (or his unorthodox cousin John) meant by saying the kingdom of heaven had come.

To me, the term “kingdom of heaven” seemed like some far out idea that fit better in a fairy tale than in the “real world.” Heaven (whatever that is or looks like) has its place out there, and we have ours on this earth. And never the twain shall meet?

But that’s not what Jesus said. He said they do, in fact, meet. And that this kingdom of heaven is found here on earth. In addition to this, he said the ones who inhabit it are the poor and the persecuted. Doesn’t exactly sound like the American dream does it?

I was reading the Acts account in the Scriptures recently and was reminded of how the Jewish people during Jesus’ day misunderstood this kingdom as well. They thought that it was something national. They believed that it was about restructuring the politics of the empire they lived in. They wanted representation, land ownership, economic reform, and national healthcare. They wanted a return to the “Jewish” nation their forefathers believed in. But Jesus was introducing something much greater than a new and better government. He was introducing a kingdom made up of people that would live as God created them to. This kingdom is not bound by land or territory. It has no central government. There is neither a temple, nor a White House. Instead, with Jesus as the king, this kingdom is to be lived out in the hearts of those who seek after God and the way he created the world to be. A kingdom of heaven.

I have come to believe that the kingdom of heaven isn’t some distant, metaphysical reality that we all hope we’ll go to someday. It isn’t golden streets or 72 virgins or half naked babies with harps. It is a movement begun by Jesus to live in alignment with the heart of God. It is an invitation to live as God has created us to. It is a new world order. Jesus introduced a new way to love, work, spend, speak, and live in this world; and it models the way we were truly designed to be. When Jesus said the kingdom of heaven had come, he was saying that it is time to live on earth like we would live in a kingdom in heaven. And it all takes after the heart of Jesus.

More on this and how it relates to my life and work in NYC to come…

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Failure is not an option.

Of all the things that someone could be afraid of, I’ve never been afraid of much. I have never had any phobias. I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, thunderstorms, and darkness does not bother me. I don’t get nauseas very easily, and I enjoy the occasional horror movie. But I have learned that I have one great fear in my life. I am afraid of failure.

Growing up, I remember feeling a heavy sense of expectation on all that I did. I was taught to do everything to the best of my ability, and that something wasn’t worth doing if it wasn’t worth doing right. I am grateful for having been raised with this mentality. It’s caused me to become who I am today. But with everything in life, it comes with its demons, so to speak.

My desire to be successful in all that I do effects how I see myself and interact with others. When I place such heavy expectations on my performance, I become frustrated when the outcome is not what I desire it to be, even if it is out of my control. Because I can’t risk defeat, I must ensure that I have control and influence over every detail that might affect the outcome. Unfortunately, this often comes at the cost of monopolizing tasks and manipulating others. But I have learned something about failure.

Failure is realistic. And more than that, failure holds the intrinsic possibility of growth. We learn more from our failures than anything else. If we define success as task achievements, than we are going to be disappointed a lot. Life will happen, beyond our control. But if the growth, learning, and personal development of ourselves and others is what is important to us, than our failure means our success. How sad it is that we live under the expectation of perfection. We are slaves to perfect performance, perfect attendance, perfect bodies, and perfect relationships. Our culture says that in order to be successful, we have to feed into this expectation. But it is the very drive for success that is causing us to fail. We cannot live in this shadow.

May we realize and embrace the growth in our failures.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pridefully Humble

Partially eaten pizza in a box

So a lot has been going on in the two weeks since I arrived in Brooklyn. I just finished my two weeks of training, and the first teen group is arriving tomorrow. My schedule has been jam packed with visiting partnering ministry sites, training, and learning the subway systems and boroughs. I’ve only been here for 14 days, and I feel like I’ve seen most of NYC (though this is far from true). All throughout this time though, I have been hit over and over with realizations concerning myself, ministry, people, the church, and God.
One of the things that I have been thinking about lately is humility. In a city where “look out for yourself” is the theme of daily life, what does it look like to be humble? When I look at myself, I seem pretty humble (as oxymoronic as that sounds…and it should). I am often willing to give of my own time and resources for others. In years past, I would volunteer my summers to work at a camp for youth. I am normally willing to share what I have with others. When the earthquake struck Haiti, I sold one of my guitars and gave the money to the relief effort. I always strive to go the extra mile for others, and I even enjoy doing it. But two recent events gave me a different understanding of humility.
I was exploring a neighborhood in the Lower East Side with a few other interns last week. We were trying to become familiar with what social resources were available in the area. We came upon a young guy and girl who were cleaning out the van which they lived in. It was close to dinner time, so I asked them both if they knew of any soup kitchens in the area. They said no, but offered me what little food they had available. I promptly declined and explained that I was not hungry, but was looking into what resources were available in that community.
Later that evening, we met a man who was hungry and sitting outside a church. We offered to take him to a local spot and buy him pizza. After walking a few blocks, we arrived and offered to buy him as much pizza as he wanted. However, he insisted that he only wanted one slice; though I knew he hadn’t eaten in a while. He wouldn’t even accept a few dollars that we offered him. I couldn’t understand why he refused to accept all the things we offered him. It wasn’t until later that day when it hit me. It was pride. No matter what the rationale behind it, this man couldn’t accept everything we offered because it would infringe on his pride.
This brought me back to the young couple in the van. They were willing to give what they had to meet my need. But I refused. I had all kinds of reasoning behind why I said what I did. They need it more than I do, I can find food for myself, and I don’t want to inconvenience them. But when it comes down to it, I had a need, and they offered to be the means to meet it. The only thing that was in the way was my pride.
So many times, I have seen the word humility defined as something like “being ready and willing to give.” But humility also means being ready and willing to receive. Humility is freeing oneself from arrogance and pride, no matter what form it may take. Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he told Peter, “If I you do not let me wash your feet, you have no part with me.” Yes, Jesus said that it is better to give than to receive, but it’s not always easier. It’s hard to receive because it means that we have a need. And nobody (no matter what economic status) likes to admit that they have a need. How interesting it is that so many people have equated humility with giving. It’s easy to feel good about yourself when you give. But it’s quite another thing to feel good about yourself when you acknowledge that you are “needy.” In order to avoid this feeling, we continue to live generously and “bless” others in our fake framework of humility. We are pridefully humble.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pre-City Thoughts

I’m writing this as I sit on a train moving through the mountains of Vermont. As I head to NYC (my home for the next two and half months), I can’t help but think of the motives, intentions, and implications of what I am doing. It hasn’t been easy. I don’t get to see my family often, since they moved to a small village in Vermont. Once again, I will be spending a summer away from them, friends, and my job. I’ve asked myself why. My concentration in college the past three years has been Youth Ministry. That is what I want to become fully involved in once I graduate, and it has had a large part to do with why I chose CSM. I want to impact teens to look beyond their needs and desires and serve Jesus by serving others. Of course CSM is a great way to do this, and it doesn’t look bad on a resume for future opportunities in youth ministry. I’m also in the middle of trying to discern whether God may be prodding me to work in an urban environment. Again, a summer in the city would be great testing ground for this.

But I can’t help to think that my job this summer may have something to do with me and God. Sure, my other motives are legitimate reasons. I just can’t seem to let go of the fact that the process leading up to this job has been hard. And I’m certain that this summer will be even harder. As I evaluate my expectations for this summer, I have come to face a few things about my job.

1) Two and a half months of work aren’t going to solve the problems in the city.

2) A week in the city isn't going to be the solution to any issues the teen groups may have.

3) I’m not supposed to solve either group’s problems anyway. God has more to do with that than me.

This all leaves me to consider myself. Of all the realistic expectations I could have about working in the city this summer, the most probable one I come to is that God will work in me. Of course I believe that I will have an impact on those around me. Of course I believe that God can use me in some incredible ways. But all of that is up to God and my own willingness. The only two factors in the equation I have anything to do with are me and God. I have believed in a God for a while now, and over the years I am continually fascinated with what I have grown to understand. I like it when I learn something new. I like it when God helps me to grow. But if my memory serves me correct, the time periods in my life where I grew the most are marked with the most difficulty. Growth doesn’t come easy.

As I head to the city, I like to think that of the many reasons I am going, I am going to find God. I’m not sure how God will show up, but I’m expecting it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share some of those experiences. Most of all, I hope I get to know God better, and that I am used to help others do the same.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ripple Effect

My grandfather often says that water fascinates him. He’s always loved fishing and swimming, and going to the ocean is a favorite pastime. As strange as a fascination with water might sound, the more I think about it, the more I have to agree with him. When I visit my family in VT, there is nothing more calming throughout the night than the sound of the running river in their back property. A couple weeks ago, I went on a camping trip. My favorite part was the small waterfalls that I found deep in the forest (see photography). But as I think about it, the beauty doesn’t strike me as much as the nature of water. Given a level and enclosed area, water takes on a still, quiet form such as a pond. Throw in a decline and some gravity, and you easily have a rushing river. It can give life, or be an agent of destruction. Water is something of potential.

People fascinate me. When I was a teen, I couldn’t wait to finish school and go out skateboarding with my friends. Friends play a huge part of my life now. I love going out with friends for a cup of coffee or to hear some live music. I even still enjoy an occasional skate session. I also love meeting new people. Each person has a unique story and personality. I’ve always prided myself in my diversity of friends. I think what fascinates me most about people is their nature. And like water, everyone has potential.

The question is what kind of potential do we want to reach? Most of the time, we prefer the safe, stable environments. Environments where we only interact with people we’re comfortable with, opportunities we manage, and beliefs we understand. We maintain these things with such consistency and control that we become entrenched in our routines and mindset. And like a still and quiet pond, any disturbance in the water is unwanted.

But the problem with this life style is that it lacks motion. Motion is what changes us and impacts people. It means breaking out of our norm to reach someone in need or to learn something new. These actions always involve risk though. The risk of losing balance, moving in the wrong direction, and expending energy all come with it. To be moved to action means risking that ripple of disturbance in our comfortable environment. But that ripple is exactly what we need in our still, quiet “ponds.” The ripple effect is a truly awesome phenomenon. It only takes one small stone to create a huge effect on the surface of the water. The waves continue to expand outward, until they reach the outer edge of the water.

Our actions can be likened to the ripple effect. Our personal growth and our impact on others start with one small action that leads to wider results. Actions such as these can affect others in ways that we cannot even see. But they never would have occurred without an initial break from what we are comfortable with. We have the potential. Now there must be motion. And comfortable, stable environments are the ultimate motion killer. We have to be willing to evaluate ourselves. Will we be satisfied with our lives at a stasis, or will we be moved to create a ripple effect with our lives?